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On How Rewards Do Not Build Motivation

Rewards seem to be a momentary solution, but in fact they do not build character and they stifle motivation.

Rewards are among the most handy techniques to convince a child to do something. No matter their form, be it a toy because you got a good grade, an ice cream for going to the doctor, a few minutes of cartoons because you ate everything, rewards are a way of convincing a child to do something at a certain time.

Daniel Pink, in his book Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, writes about motivation and explains precisely how bad rewards are in the lives of adults and implicitly in children’s lives. With this in mind, I wrote the following article.

Rewards seem like a short term solution. The question remains: what effect do they have on a long term? Do they contribute to building a strong character? Do they build motivation?

When a child always relates his actions to an external stimulus, in this case reward, they loose track of the purpose of that action.

For instance, a child doesn’t eat to please the adult or to get some screen time. That is not the purpose of food. They eat because they are hungry and because that is how he can get the necessary nutrients for his body to grow and be healthy. If a child puts his toys away because they know they’ll get a cookie or something as a reward, they will understand that putting the toys away is not their responsibility, that it helps them create order, but they will more likely perceive it as something they do to get something in return.

When we understand why we do certain things, we can internalize that purpose and resonate with it.

We stop hurting another child or adult, because we hurt them and they feel pain. We don’t stop because we get something in return or because something is taken from us - punishment. The moment they get a reward to do something, the child’s perception is distorted and the purpose of that action changes into one conditioned by an external stimulus.

When we depend on an external stimulus to do something, no matter the nature of that action, be it cognitive, emotional, physical, when that stimulus disappears so does our desire to do it. In other words, why should I do that thing if I get nothing in return?

When the child does something as the result of a barter, only quid pro quo , the value of that action becomes a purely transactional one, meaningless, lacking altruism, attention to their feelings and empathy towards others.

Inner motivation is built progressively, attributing meaning to everything you do and purpose. And that purpose isn’t always to gain personal benefit. Sometimes we do things without getting an immediate satisfaction. Especially as adults, we often find ourselves in situations in which we have to work consistently and perseverantly for long periods of time until we get to see results. For instance, in college, where we learn for years to get a diploma or at work, where we have month-long projects, that bring or not direct benefits. If a child gets rewards to be nice to his colleagues, he will understand that we’re only nice to the others because we get something in return. A bully’s motivation isn’t far from this, who in high-school will only stop bullying if you give him something in return.

Rewards can decrease the quality and the efficacy of an action.

When a child performs an action motivated by internal drive, from pure desire and curiosity, then his level of engagement is very high. That is when we can see true focus, we can see the state of flow, term coined by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, state in which we are completely immersed in what we do and in which creation takes place. When a child knows he is solving a puzzle because he’ll be getting something at the end, their mind will not be completely involved in the process, but will be half thinking about that reward. Therefore, it is very likely that he will not manage to solve that puzzle or take more time solving it, than he would if he decided to solve it out of pure interest, being present and focused.

Rewards can contribute to building short-term thinking.

Meaning? If we tell a child that he must clean his room because they’ll get some money for it, or if we tell a child before going to kindergarten to stop pulling a colleague’s hair, because they’ll spend some time at their favorite play spot inn the afternoon, the child will do it thinking about the reward we promised and anxious to get it. Usually, for this strategy to work, the promised reward must appear as soon as possible. Often, children who are motivated through rewards are also extremely impulsive and have little patience. Because they are not used to doing something keeping a goal in mind, a real one, a long term goal. Motivating a child to learn to read by giving him badges or candy will not create in his mind an understanding of the purpose of reading, nor will it foster the love of reading. it will probably push him further away from the goal you planned.

Rewards can encourage cheating, unethical behavior and choosing shortcuts to get results.

That is because, when our values relate to getting a reward and to an external authority that conditions us in this manner, we will not choose to do the right thing, since the right thing is often hard to do. Often, a reward-‘‘motivated’’ child will do a certain thing, as long as the adult who conditioned them is around. When the adult disappears, when the reward or punishment are gone, the behavior is also gone.

Rewards can lead to diminishing creativity.

A child with reward in mind, acting as the engine to their actions, will also have a lower attention span, since their motivation won’t consist in doing a thing for the sake of the process, but in getting the reward. When we do something in order to get something in return, we put aside that action’s value, which we can’t see because the reward shines so brightly and offers a momentary satisfaction and many times, not even that.

When the child acts guided by an inner impulse, in order to fulfil a need, to learn something new, he is completely immersed in the process, focused and therefore, capable of creating.

Creativity happens in a state of flow, when inhibition is low and our inner critic is sleeping. That’s when solutions pop up, ideas and new ways of doing something. When reward is lurking round the corner, everything is on alert, on the run and thinking about the result.

Of course, we cannot claim to eliminate reward completely or never to use it. Tiredness, stress, unforeseen situations bring us to a point when we lack the resources to come up with other solutions. But it is important even then, to keep in mind the effects of rewards, especially on the long term and limit their use, if we cannot eliminate them entirely.

If the purpose of education is to build character and to build independent adults, capable of contributing to society and of being happy, then we cannot take motivation out of the equation.

Without motivation, which is the engine to all the actions we undertake, we wouldn’t be able to commit to anything and be loyal to our commitments. We couldn’t build relationships with the people around us that are not based on ‘‘if I gain nothing from you, then I will not be with you’’. We couldn’t experiment the satisfaction a good deed brings, one done only to do good.

About Me

I’m Simona, 3-6 Montessori teacher, loving the method, and trying to be my best version at it. This is My Montessori Shelf, a place where you can find resources and inspiration for working with children.

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